By Etienne Vlok
Reviewing a good game is like getting treated to an elaborately planned, fully catered 3 course meal on a boat trip somewhere. The atmosphere is good, the scenery serves as a nice backdrop for the event, and you can be sure that whatever is put on a plate in front of you is a well prepared dish.
Review Soldier of Fortune: Payback is more like eating a steak in a dingy roadside diner, then having the police burst in and arrest everyone in sight because it’s actually a front for a prostitution and drug ring, then finding out that you contracted food poisoning from the meal, and that your mom died when she saw your face on a TV news report as you were led away from the scene with the words â€œMAJOR DRUG BUSTâ€ superimposed on the bottom of the screen.
While it may seem unfair to label it as such this early in the review, allow me to assure you that SOF: Payback is one of the worst FPS released in recent memory. In fact, when you compare it to the previous entry into the series – Soldier of Fortune: Double Helix, released in 2002 – you’ll find that the game has regressed in most areas.
The plot, if it can be called that, revolves around a mercenary doing the Right Thingâ„¢ to Bad Peopleâ„¢ in Exotic Localesâ„¢ after being Double Crossedâ„¢ by a Previously Trusted Associateâ„¢. And that’s pretty much it. Yes, there’s a paper thin narrative about trying to stop a terrorist group (which, thoughtfully enough, brands all its’ members with a tattoo in the neck, something I’m sure American law enforcement agencies will look upon with favour, since it makes their job so much easier) that’s trying to destabilize government and do bad things to the world. The first indication of the amount of thought put into this plot is that an enemy leader actually lends his name to the terrorist organization he’s leading (the Imad Al-Din Alliance, if you were morbidly curious,) possibly thinking that law enforcement agencies are too stupid to realize that an organization and its leader can have a different name. It’s like Osama bin Laden starting the Bin Laden Buccaneers: a good medical aid, competitive salary, travel opportunities and a chance to stick it to the USA, guaranteed!
The gameplay itself can be summarized by paraphrasing Douglas Adams’ famous axiom: it is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of a product by the sense of achievement you get from getting it to work at all. The fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by the superficial design flaws.
The game wallows in bad design decisions: poor controls, confusing level design and scripted enemies all rear their unwelcome heads. The game is actually a Pavlovian exercise in pattern memorization, since when you die (and you’ll die a number of times, due to the AI blatantly cheating – more on that in a second) and you run through the level again, the exact same enemies spawn in the exact same places and pretty much do the exact same actions. The levels, while being completely linear, sometimes manages to present so many â€˜false’ routes that the chance you find the actual route you’re supposed to take rarely happens on the first attempt. The controls, in a bizarre move away from the trend, make you use the d-pad to crouch. Because there’s no cover feature, as such, you’ll have to crouch a lot. However, having to move your thumb from the left stick (when running under fire) to press down on the d-pad is completely unintuitive, and gets you killed a lot too, since you’re basically standing still while you do it.
The game offers some customization options, giving you a wide variety of weapons and modifications to alter them to suit your needs. This would be one of the few good points in the game, except for that fact that you don’t pick up any extra ammo for this pimped-out gun during the actual levels. The practical implication is that you’re forced to pick up and use a standard enemy weapon halfway through most missions due to lack of ammo.
The AI itself is a throwback to the halcyon days of 2001. Aside from ambling around the level, taking cover to fire at you and rushing to hit you with their guns, the AI never tries something as basic as pinning you with fire, or flanking you – things that are pretty much standard in many, many shooters today. The fact that the game follows a monster box routine, ala Doom 3, where enemies are spawned into the level and then sent forth to ruin your day, makes it all the more unfair. There is absolutely no point in using tactics to clear the areas as you progress through them, since the AI will often just spawn in behind you and nail you in the back for an easy, cheap kill, rendering your meticulous tactics as worthless as a percussionist during brain surgery. Since the abovementioned tactic will be employed by the AI a lot, I think it’s fair to discuss the atrocious load times here.
I’m OK with a load period of about 10 to 20 seconds when a level is first loaded up, but every time the game reverts to a previous checkpoint when you die, it takes 10 to 20 seconds – and the checkpoints are few and far between. It’s when replaying the same section for the 6th time, getting killed by the AI mobbing you from areas you’ve already cleared, and then sitting through another 20 second loading screen to a checkpoint 10 minutes ago, that you consider selling all your worldly possessions and taking up a life of meditation in some remote mountain region of Tibet.
So let’s talk about the much touted â€˜dismemberment’ system the game has. I knew I was in for a crapfest of epic proportions when I read on the back of DVD casing the games comes in, the following among the marketing bullet points:
â€œThe most outrageous damage modelling ever… not for the faint of heart!â€
When the game feels the need to beat me over the head with its use of violence as a unique selling point, you’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel. Like previous entries into the series, the SOF games feature a ridiculous amount of blood and gore, offering the player the chance to dispatch his enemy by severing limbs or by a finely aimed headshot, which usually decapitates the enemy. It’s back, and it works, but I can’t say that it makes the game any better for being present. Yes, there is a certain novelty dispatching enemies by systematically removing their limbs, but it’s fleeting, at best, and by the time the 3rd level rolls around, the game will be so frustrating because of other problems that you won’t be arsed enough to care. The gore doesn’t so much scream â€˜hardcore’ as it does â€˜childish.’
There is a multiplayer feature with the standard gametypes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and so on. I played two games (not surprisingly, there are not a lot of multiplayer matches to be found), and this game mode has some bad lag going for it. It’s nothing special, to be honest, and it’s been done a lot better by other recent titles.
The voice acting in the game is horrible. Most of it come from dialogue between your â€˜handler’ and yourself, but it’s so clichÃ©-ridden that you could probably complete most of the lines yourself if you have a good action movie background. The music is actually one of the few redeeming values of the game, with an interesting mix between atmospheric and guitar-driven action riffs, as the situation demands. Visually, the game is no slouch, with decent character models and interesting death animations (legless enemies crawling about before blowing out their last breath, etc.) both featuring.
But if you were thinking that broken game mechanics and design issues were the cause of Payback’s problems, let me simply assure you that you haven’t seen idiotic bugs like those present in this game in a long time. Nowhere is it more obvious than in an escort mission. Now, escort missions can be a huge bugger to get through at the best of times, when controls and AI are actually decent. Pair an escort mission into this game, and you face an uphill battle that makes Everest look like a weekend excursion. I can clearly remember this point of the game being called, in my mind, Where The Fun Stopped. It’s wasn’t any good before that, but reloading this section multiple times because the game kept prompting me to return to my charge to protect him – even when I was standing right next to him – wasn’t fun at all. It especially wasn’t fun because if you haven’t returned to his side in a set amount of time (even though I never left it)
you simply die and get taken back to the last checkpoint. Excuse me while I slam my head into my desk just thinking about it.
Ultimately, the game fails because it isn’t sure what it wants to be, veering between sections trying to be gritty and hardcore, combined with completely unrealistic bits: you can kill most enemies with maximum two bullets, often completely removing body parts, yet the end-boss of every level takes upwards of 30 sniper rounds and several grenades. The experience can best be described as the first game suffering from schizophrenia, with a side helping of anti-social personality disorder and some psychosis added for flavouring.
So, to summarize: passable graphics and music, a plot that would see me dying from dysentery before having to sit through it again, boring multiplayer and, finally, horrible gameplay, shamelessly milking the â€˜gore’ factor – all this adds up to my initial assessment: truly, the worst FPS of recent memory. If you really want a military themed shooter, go buy Call of Duty 4. Hell, go buy three copies: you still be getting more value for your money than a single copy of SOF: Payback.
I think my feelings toward the game can sadly be summed up by the following: if Jack Thompson tried to ban Soldier of Fortune: Payback, I wouldn’t give a damn.
Graphics: 60 %
Gameplay: 20 %
Originality: 25 %
Tilt: 30 %
Overall: 30 % (run like hell)
Last Updated: March 17, 2008